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Saying the Poverty Word, and Doing Something About It.

Fifteen years ago I was told by a program officer at a major national foundation that I should never say the word “poverty” in meetings at her foundation. She lectured me that her board and the leadership were tired of hearing about poverty, that there was nothing that really could be done, and talking about poverty was so yesterday. She was anxious to hear about social entrepreneurship, innovation, and anything else that would be new and fresh and exciting, but not poverty.

In these fifteen years, with poverty largely out of the public vocabulary and public policy discussion, we have not made long term progress, including reducing child poverty. Despite the relatively good news this week in the 2015 Current Population Survey data, 1 in 5 children still live in poverty. Roughly 1 in every 2 children live in households with incomes less than two times the poverty level. The number of children who live in deep poverty – with household incomes below half the poverty level – is over 6 million.

Federal and state support for children overall, as well as children in poverty, has dropped precipitously during this time period. Under current federal policy, the Urban Institute has estimated that spending on children will decline further in the foreseeable future. Overall, for example, the Urban Institute estimates that federal spending on children as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is projected to drop from 2.1 percent to 1.7 percent by 2025.[1]

A largely invisible shift in assistance for families with children has occurred as a result of the declining commitment of states to public assistance — what we used to call welfare. “Welfare reform,” more formally known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, created a new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), designed to encourage work and motivate parents to rely on assistance for only a transitional period. Whatever the good intentions, TANF has evolved to the point where very little cash assistance is actually going to families with children in poverty. States have limited eligibility, reduced real benefit levels, and shifted federal monies to other purposes unrelated to child poverty. Now, the magnitude of the TANF effect on reducing child poverty is actually quite modest, estimated by ASPE to be in the range of a half of a percentage point in the child poverty rate. [2]

A dramatic measure of this shift away from cash assistance for children in poverty is captured by the change in the ratio of families receiving TANF cash assistance to the number of families in poverty in individual states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that the ratio of families in poverty who receive cash assistance from TANF has dropped from 68 for every 100 families in poverty in 1996 (when the program was implemented) to only 23 percent in 2014. The support for children and families in poverty in some states is extremely low. Twelve states provide TANF assistance to less than ten percent of their families in poverty. In Texas, only 5 families out of every 100 in poverty receive TANF assistance.[3]

As federal and state policy for children in poverty has headed in one direction, our understanding of the experience, consequences, and effective interventions for poverty has headed in the other. We have learned more and more about the consequences of poverty as well as the opportunities for evidence-based poverty policy. We know more, but are doing less.

Greg Duncan and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn’s exceptional review, published in 1999, demonstrated the pathways and summarized the evidence of poverty’s effects on child development, schooling and achievement, long term economic opportunity, and other important consequences.[4] Since then, we have learned much more about the consequences of poverty and poverty environments, the role of violence and toxic stress, and the myriad interactions of poverty with co-factors such as child abuse and neglect, housing instability, environmental exposures, and poor nutrition.

Thanks to great sociology – such as the recent books by Kathryn Eden and Luke Schaeffer, and Matthew Desmond – we now have thick description of the context and environments for families in poverty, including families living in extreme poverty. [5]

We also now have the field of the neuroscience of poverty. Its first generation of research has been able to document the profound neurological and achievement effects associated with low income.[6] In the details, the lack of development of social and emotional capabilities, memory and information processing, and executive functioning (e.g., decision-making, judgement, impulsivity, etc.) associated with poverty is an extraordinary story, one that is getting significant national attention.

Does this new emphasis on neuroscience and poverty demonstrate a causal link between income and brain development? Does it imply that we have doomed cohorts of young people who have unfortunately lived in disadvantaged and stressful environments? Does it indicate that if we turn around income poverty that we will necessarily improve brain development in children? The quick answers are no, no, and no. This first generation of research is correlational, and the findings mask the underlying complexity of home environments, parenting, and other complex influences on child and youth development.

The good news is that in the hiatus of national and state poverty policy, a great deal of evidence has been accumulated about the power of interventions and the necessary institutional requirements for policy success. We do know what to do. It is hard, messy, and requires omnibus strategies that involve parents, schools, communities, as well as experts. We also need to commit significant resources.

A great illustration of the promise and reality of poverty reduction strategies is the Urban Institute’s recent simulation of the poverty effect of implementing seven evidence-based programs in New York City: transitional jobs, earnings supplements, a higher minimum wage, increased benefits from SNAP (food stamps), housing vouchers, guaranteed child care subsidies, and a tax credit for seniors and people with disabilities. The Urban Institute analysts estimate that implementation of these seven programs would reduce poverty in New York City from 21 percent to 7 percent.[7]

Despite the obvious need, consequences, and potential for poverty policy innovations, our presidential candidates do not want to say the poverty word either. Poverty is depressing. The perception is that poor people do not vote. Talk of poverty carries with it the obvious complexities and challenges of dealing with race in this country.

Instead, the candidates’ narratives focus on preserving or revitalizing the middle class, enhancing economic opportunity, and resetting the American dream. In the one major exception, Mr. Trump has conflated poverty with race, asking African Americans, “What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs.”

In 2016, we need to talk explicitly about poverty and get active about the menu of local, state, and federal options for changing the trajectories of our children who are increasingly being imprinted with the effects of family, school, and community disadvantage. We know what to do: it will be difficult, expensive, incomplete, and for many, unsatisfying. Reducing poverty is a long term proposition, which is why the 50 year trends are so telling and distressing. But given what we know, we cannot continue to avoid dealing with U.S. poverty, either rhetorically or substantively.


[1] Julia Isaacs, Sara Edelstein, Heather Hahnellen Steele, and C. Eugene Steuerle,  Kids’share 2015 Report On Federal Expenditures On Children In 2014 And Future Projections (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, September 29, 2015).

[2] Ajay Chaudry, Christopher Wimer, Suzanne Macartney, Lauren Frohlich, Colin Campbell, Kendall Swenson, Don Oellerich, and Susan Hauan, Poverty in the United States: 50-year Trends and Safety Net Impacts, (Washington, DC: Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, March 2016).

[3] Ife Floyd , Ladonna Pavetti, Liz Schott, TANF Continues to Weaken as a Safety Net, (Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 27, 2015).

[4] Greg Duncan and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Consequences of Growing Up Poor (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999).

[5] Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), and Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Crown, 2016).

[6] See for example, Sara B. Johnson, Jenna L. Riis, Kimberly G. Noble, “State of the Art Review: Poverty and the Developing Brain,” JAMA Pediatrics, March 2016.

[7] Linda Giannarelli, Laura Wheaton, Joyce Morton, How Much Could Policy Changes Reduce Poverty in New York City? (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, March 9, 2015) available online


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joe Steensma #

    Thanks for starting the conversation. In your concluding paragraph you talk about local, state, and federal options that will change the trajectory. I might offer another (hybrid) approach. I think it is important to recognize that there are many entities invested in poverty. Poverty (and keeping people in the throes thereof) is quite an industry, from which many profit. The problem with so many social problems is that we never invite big money… I am talking private capital… To the table. One reason (certainty not the only) effective organizations don’t have wide spread uptake of known “fixes” is they cannot attract the capital to “scale” the solutions more broadly. So, we end up with a patchwork of non-profits who never get big enough to have “society-wide” impact on poverty and (in the aggregate) are inefficient due to the fragmented nature of the sector. We need to identify winning programs at very well run non-profits and leverage the power of greed to scale these solutions. One thing capital (free-flowing investment dollars) does well is find the most efficient and effective way to produce yield. If state and local governments would commit to paying high yields on social impact bonds that find high performing and scalable solutions at well managed non-profits, investment dollars would flow in. I don’t know what those solutions are, but THEY ARE OUT THERE!

    If you give the market an opportunity to invest in high-yield social impact bonds, I believe you will have two outcomes;
    1) high performing non-profits capable of making a dent in the problem will get the capital needed to scale programs/initiatives to have desired impact
    2) it gives the market a viable alternative to investing in the fundamental problems, from which it is profiting.

    Social impact bonds are not the end-all/be-all, but they are a way that we can include private INVESTMENT in finding large-scale solutions to poverty… And it makes capitalist, like me, feel as if we aren’t all bad!


    September 20, 2016
  2. Ellen Rostand #

    Great post!


    September 21, 2016

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